Writing Tools

Don’t like the way you write? An artificial intelligence app promises to polish your prose

17 January 2018

From Quartz:

I am a professional writer, but I often hate my writing. I wish it was more concise and powerful. And it certainly doesn’t read as smoothly as the work of my literary heroes. Recently, I began to wonder: Could a software program make me better at my job?

The Hemingway App, an online writing editor created in 2013 by brothers Adam and Ben Long, promises to do just that. “Hemingway makes your writing bold and clear,” the site claims, so that “your reader will focus on your message, not your prose.” If you listen to the app’s advice, it will rid your writing of run-on sentences, needless adverbs, passive voice, and opaque words. There’s no guarantee you’ll crank out the next Farewell to Arms—but the goal is to get you closer to Ernest Hemingway’s clear, minimalist style.

The app uses a crude artificial intelligence that recognizes writing problems through natural language processing. When you copy and paste your text into the Hemingway Editor, it highlights sentences with possible issues in different colors and offers suggested changes. For example, if I write, “This Editor has been used since around 2013,” the words “been used” are highlighted green because I am using the passive voice.

Most of the recommendations offered by the Hemingway App are based on research into readability—that is, how easy it is to understand a given text.

. . . .

I also ignored some of the app’s suggestions. A few were just nonsensical. It suggested I replace the word “demonstrate” with simpler synonyms “prove” or “show,” but I was talking about people going to airports to protest. I rejected other suggestions for stylistic reasons. The app wanted me to remove “really” from the sentence “As it turns out, protest size really does matter.” But I wanted to keep the conversational tone.

In the end, I was able to bring the grade level of my story down from 13 to nine, and shed 34 words along the way. Then I gave the updated version to Kira Bindrim—a Quartz editor who’d edited the original story.

“I think my gut reaction is to prefer the original,” Bindrim wrote to me after reading the Hemingway version.

Link to the rest at Quartz

PG wonders if there’s an app that really works for professional authors.

PG also suggests that Hemingway might crash if he fed some typical legal documents into it.

Inside One of America’s Last Pencil Factories

15 January 2018

From The New York Times:

A pencil is a little wonder-wand: a stick of wood that traces the tiniest motions of your hand as it moves across a surface. I am using one now, making weird little loops and slashes to write these words. As a tool, it is admirably sensitive. The lines it makes can be fat or thin, screams or whispers, blocks of concrete or blades of grass, all depending on changes of pressure so subtle that we would hardly notice them in any other context. (The difference in force between a bold line and nothing at all would hardly tip a domino.) And while a pencil is sophisticated enough to track every gradation of the human hand, it is also simple enough for a toddler to use.

Such radical simplicity is surprisingly complicated to produce. Since 1889, the General Pencil Company has been converting huge quantities of raw materials (wax, paint, cedar planks, graphite) into products you can find, neatly boxed and labeled, in art and office-supply stores across the nation: watercolor pencils, editing pencils, sticks of charcoal, pastel chalks. Even as other factories have chased higher profit margins overseas, General Pencil has stayed put, cranking out thousands upon thousands of writing instruments in the middle of Jersey City.

. . . .

Other parts of the factory are eruptions of color. Red pencils wait, in orderly grids, to be dipped into bright blue paint. A worker named Maria matches the color of her shirt and nail polish to the shade of the pastel cores being manufactured each week. One of the company’s signature products, white pastels, have to be made in a dedicated machine, separated from every other color. At the tipping machine, a whirlpool of pink erasers twists, supervised patiently by a woman wearing a bindi.

. . . .

In an era of infinite screens, the humble pencil feels revolutionarily direct: It does exactly what it does, when it does it, right in front of you. Pencils eschew digital jujitsu. They are pure analog, absolute presence. They help to rescue us from oblivion. Think of how many of our finest motions disappear, untracked — how many eye blinks and toe twitches and secret glances vanish into nothing. And yet when you hold a pencil, your quietest little hand-dances are mapped exactly, from the loops and slashes to the final dot at the very end of a sentence.

Link to the rest at The New York Times and thanks to Nate at The Digital Reader for the tip.

PG recommends you go to the OP to see wonderful photos of industrial age machinery with contrasting bright colors of colored pencils.

If you are having problems accessing the story, here’s PG’s tip for the day for those of you using a Chrome browser: Right Click on the NYT link above, then choose the third item from the top in the drop-down menu – “Open link in incognito window” and you may find success.

Better Writing Begins with the Right Tools

12 January 2018

From JSTOR Daily:

I have a theory that for writers, digital writing tools are just as influential as the mason’s choice of a particular compass or square.

Historian Lon Shelby wrote extensively about the building practices of the medieval masons behind the creation of such cathedrals as Chartres, iconic buildings that owe their creation and execution to the specific tools masons adopted for measurement and layout. “[U]ntil the history of their tools is adequately described,” Shelby writes, “the achievements of medieval masons cannot be properly evaluted from a technological point of view.” Shelby locates the geometry of these iconic buildings in the specific types of compass and square that masons had access to in the medieval era.

Is it really so different for current-day scribes? It’s not hard to goad writers into drawing virtual blood by asking them to expound on the relative merits of Ulysses and Bear, Markdown and rich text, or Microsoft Word vs Google Docs. And who isn’t a writer these days? From academics and students to corporate bloggers and analysts, there are few professionals who don’t spend at least some of their time cranking out paragraphs. Email alone ensures that most of us distribute more words per day than our grandparents might have sent forth in a year.

For all the time we spend cranking out words at a keyboard, however, we rarely stop to ask how all that keyboard time affects the way we write and communicate. It’s not just the keyboard that shapes our prose, of course; far more influential is the software in which we do our writing. That’s why it pays to think about what we want from our writing tools: not just as individual writers and communicators, but as readers and human beings with a stake in the ongoing evolution of our written culture.

The impact of our writing environment is on my mind because my writing process has just been transformed by Scrivener, an writing application I purchased several years ago but have only begun to properly use. I am a bit of a software junkie, so there’s nothing unusual about me trying out a new app as part of my endless quest for productivity perfection, or returning to an app I’ve tinkered with in order to take it for a more dedicated spin. I regularly cycle through new email clients, task managers, note-taking applications, data analysis tools, and image editors.

. . . .

If you’ve been using the same writing software for years and years, as I have, it’s easy to stop thinking about the impact your tools have on the day-to-day experience of writing. For the past decade, almost all my short-form writing has been drafted in Evernote, and for twenty-five years, all my long-form writing has taken place in Microsoft Word. I’m not giving up either of those tools, but spending the past month writing in Scrivener has reminded me that new tools enable new thoughts and new ways of working.

Because Scrivener makes it so easy to slice up and reorganize pieces of a document, it profoundly changes the process of writing and revision, and the balance between them.

. . . .

Matthew Kirchenbaum has written an entire book on the impact of word processing, the seeds of which appear in his article on how it transformed the work of John Updike:

Like many others [Updike] was at first captivated by the strange new device, declaring it “dazzling” more than once. Evidence of writers test driving their first word processor is a minor genre in their personal papers. One of the best known examples comes from Russell Banks when he was writing the novel that became Affliction: “STILL VERY MUCH LEARNING TO THINK ON THIS MACHINE,” he wrote in all caps at the beginning of a document that is a kind of stream-of-consciousness exploration of its capabilities. “STRANGE EXPERIENCE, UNFAMILIAR MIXTURE OF SPEED AND SLOWDOWN.” A similar page by Salman Rushdie survives in his collection at Emory University. Stephen King, meanwhile, wrote a short story, “The Word Processor,” which was published in Playboy and stands as the first extended fictional treatment of the technology.

The kinds of praise that many writers, students, and writing teachers lavished on the emergent technology of word processing points to the very particular ways it changed the practice of writing. In an anecdotal assessment of her college students’ use of word processing in her English, Dawn Rodrigues writes that

I observed various ways in which the computer was affecting my students’ progress. First of all, the computer seemed to help reduce the students’ writing apprehension. Students who at the beginning of the semester wrote (in early journal entries) of being nervous about writing showed no anxiety at all as the course progressed. For instance, one student who couldn’t even think of an idea for a journal entry on the second day of class blossomed when he began writing on the computer. He explained in his journal that he wasn’t afraid to express himself because he knew that he could immediately delete any sentences which embarrassed him. Another student said that he liked writing with computers because he forgot to worry about what he was saying. He just enjoyed seeing the words appear.

. . . .

I’m no stranger to doing large-scale edits in Word; there was lots of big-picture rearranging involved in writing my dissertation, and later, in writing my series of ebooks. But it was a painful process, because Word (like most word processors and text editors) is set up as if the complete article (or essay, or report, or book) is the fundamental unit of work. Sure, you can move stuff around by cutting and pasting, but you have very limited options for keeping the overall structure of your work in mind as you do. Word is fundamentally a tool designed to facilitate the modest changes described by Collier.

Scrivener, on the other hand, is set up to facilitate what Dave and Russell refer to as “global revision.” It encourages writers to slice their work up into the smallest viable units: not just chapters or even sections, but individual scenes, quotes or arguments. (To write this article in Scrivener, I imported each of the quotes you read above as individual documents, so that I could pull them in and rearrange them at will.) When you look at your work through the constant lens of its component parts, it’s much easier to undertake ambitious restructuring—not just technically easier, but conceptually easier, because you can see the parts that make up the whole.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily

PG still misses WordPerfect.

An Exemplary Mouse

20 October 2017

PG just wore out a lovely mouse.

Fortunately, he had a spare so his online life could continue without tears.

Animal cruelty had nothing to do with this. It was the other kind of mouse, the one his hand grasps many times during a day without the conscious intervention of his mind. PG suspects that, over many years of computing, his brain has developed a lobe devoted entirely to sliding his right hand around his desk in precise patterns.

It would be unfair to call PG a mouse connoisseur. He’s not at all snobbish about his mice. French designs and limited edition mice hold no attraction for him.

He is, however, persnickety about his mice. Long ago, he learned he could work faster and longer at a computer if he used something other than the cheapo mouse that arrived in the same box as as a new computer. He is similarly particular about his keyboards.

PG doesn’t regard his high finger and palm standards as moral failings. Collecting Italian sports cars is far more expensive.

For a long time, PG was partial to a couple of different Logitech mice and used each until his palm wore off the silkscreened company logos and they stopped working.

A couple of years ago, PG had a wrist problem that required a wrap. Unfortunately, it was his mouse wrist and the wrap made it difficult to use his mouse.

A family member suggested an ergonomic mouse made by a company called Anker. PG had tried a couple of ergonomic mice in past years and found them both overly expensive and, while comfortable, not terribly good at being mice. Evidently the manufacturers had put all their money into the cases and scrimped on the quality of the inner works.

Back to Anker. Here’s a photo:

Here’s a photo of a hand belonging to an unidentified human holding the mouse:

.

PG was not instantly adept with this mouse, but his wrist felt better and, over the course of a couple hours, using the mouse became automatic (perhaps his large brain lobe had something to do with that). And the mouse was comfortable. In a few days, the wrap went away but the mouse stayed.

Tweaking photos often requires much more precise mouse control than dealing with documents, so PG used his prior mouse with Photoshop and Lightroom for a few weeks, but the Anker quickly came to dominate his right hand for all purposes.

Did PG mention that this mouse doesn’t cost a lot of money?

PG had looked at ergonomic mice prior to learning about the Anker and typically prices ranged from $75-150 on Amazon. The Anker mouse currently sells for $19.99.

PG keeps a spare mouse as a backup (although this is the first of the Ankers to wear out) plus another in the computer bag he takes on trips, so the demise of his original Anker mouse (with the logo mostly worn off) has not slowed down PG a bit (although he has, of course, been distracted enough to write this post).

Here’s a link to PG’s favorite mouse of all time.

Your carpals and metacarpals will thank you.

Why Digital Note-Taking Will Never Replace the Physical Journal

3 October 2017

From The Literary Hub:

 Some fortunate writers possess steel-trap memories and rarely need to jot things down. Their images and ideas materialize, as if on cue, when required for the cauldron of composition. Most, however, have developed different methods for taking research notes and roughing out early drafts. They collect scribbled-on scraps of paper, bar napkins, the backs of receipts, whatever is at hand, on their roundabout way to the writing table. Others thumb-type notes or pencil marginalia in books they happen to be reading. Still others dictate memos for later transcription. The most sensible perhaps, myself from time to time among them, keep a pocket notepad handy for capturing a bit of delicious eavesdropped dialogue or observing something, anything, seen or heard or tasted or smelled or touched that might be relevant to whatever writing project they have underway.

My memory is good, but capricious at times. My scraps of paper get misplaced or wind up in the laundry. I don’t want to figure out dictation software. And my thumbs are hopeless, which is only part of the reason I hate texting. In an era of smart phones, palm-sized digital cameras, and featherweight laptops—also known as “notebooks”—the very idea of lugging around a heavy, folio-sized, hardcover Boorum & Pease record-ruled 9-300-R ledger or oversized black spiral-bound artist sketchbook, would seem at once masochistic and medieval. Yet, these behemoths, straight out of some Dickensian accountant’s office or landscape architect’s atelier, have served as my notebooks of choice for well over 20 years.

I don’t tend to use my notebooks as diaries or journals. With rare exceptions, everything that I write, draw, paste, and tape in them has to do only with the novel I’m currently working on.

. . . .

Why do all this? Why carry around this antiquated technology? It would have been far quicker and easier to snap pictures of those gravestones and petroglyphs, scan those clippings, maybe set up a computer spreadsheet for my various invented progeny. I’m not, after all, a visual artist by any stretch. And my handwriting has continued to devolve toward illegibility.

Simply put, it has to do with the pure visceral nature of the act. When I draw a castle, a two-trunked willow, a billboard, a bird, the process of limning their outlines and angles—their optical information—makes them, for me, far more animated, individual, and finally more memorable than if I’d photographed them. Similarly, if I manually form the letters of my words, scribe out sentences, snatches of dialogue, however disjointed or inchoate or fragmentary, they register on my consciousness more fully than if I were to type them. This is especially true when I’m researching a novel—the stage in which I’m most impressionable, longing to learn, there at the foot of the mountain I must build as I climb.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

PG suggests that any essay that includes the words, “never replace” in the title will almost certainly be erroneous unless the words, “for me” appear somewhere.

7 Free Online Tools for Writers and Authors

24 September 2017

From Digital Book World:

“All you need to be a writer is a pen and paper,” is something you might say if you’re one of those smug savants who can just sit down and write an entire novel longhand.

But for the rest of us? Well, we can take all the help we can get. Naturally, there are the everyday low-fi accessories that every writer should already have in their arsenal, like notebooks and a reliable pen. But there are also a bunch of high tech tools that the interwebs can offer us.

In this post, I’d love to share seven of my favorite free online tools for writers. They’ve helped me to manage my time, improve my creative flow, and publish better material. And, most importantly, they haven’t cost me a dime!

  1. Trello

“Trello…? Is it me you’re looking for?”

Trello was designed as a project management tool for small business organizations, which is exactly where I first came across it. Having used it for my day job for an entire year, I was able to adapt it to my writing work pretty quickly.

Trello is pretty much a virtual cork board — but better. I use it to keep track of small tasks (“buy new ink cartridge”) as well as organize my ideas as and when they occur to me. Best of all, Trello’s bulletin-board style interface lets me create “cards” relating to each section of a book, allowing me to move parts of the manuscript around as I’m grappling with the structure.

. . . .

  1. Buffer

As a writer in 2017, I know it’s a part of my job to maintain my public platform, meagre as it is. At the very least, that means regularly posting words of wisdom and sharing funny writing memes on social media.

I tried a handful of tools like HootSuite that allowed me to schedule social activity ahead of time, but I prefer the simplicity (and price point) of Buffer. Now I just spend 30 minutes scheduling posts every Monday — and for the rest of the week, I’m free to write without distraction. Right?

Well, as you’ll discover in the next section, it’s maybe not that simple…

Link to the rest at Digital Book World

PG doesn’t use Buffer with TPV but he’s a big fan of the tool for other projects involving social media.

Good Reasons for Writing by Hand

11 September 2017

From Self Publishing Advice Center:

This isn’t another one of those ‘how to write’ posts, it’s a post about the actual physical nitty-gritty of how we go about putting our stories down into words.

Lots of writers now use the ubiquitous laptop – some have even found a way of writing on tablets, and others still, as recent discussions following the recent BEA Indie Author Fringe have shown, have been talking about how they use voice recognition software for dictating their stories.

. . . .

When it comes to practicality though, I have always and still do, favour pen and paper. Specifically fountain pen and leather-wrap journal. It’s what works for me.

Of course writing this way is not without its downsides. Principally there’s the typing it up afterwards (‘though this too does have its own pros, but more of that later).

. . . .

The Advantages of Writing with Pen and Paper

  • Accessibility: Take the pen and notebook and you can literally write anywhere, at any ime, and be putting down your story in as short as time as it takes to flick off the lid and turn to the next blank page.
  • Portability: The leather-wrap journal is the ultimate in portability.
  • Power: It never runs out of battery, or crashes.
  • Legibility: You don’t have to worry about the glare of sunlight on the screen.

I’ve been known to write (as those dreams would have it) for hours in my favourite coffee shop or library, or in snatched moments at the end of lunch breaks at work, or on the bus whilst commuting.

Link to the rest at Self Publishing Advice Center

This Machine Learning-Powered Software Teaches Kids To Be Better Writers

8 September 2017

From Fast Company:

Every time students take a writing exercise on Quill.org–a writing instruction platform for schools–their responses are logged by computers and analyzed for patterns. Algorithms take account of every false word they type, every misplaced comma, every inappropriate conjunction, deepening a sense of where the nation’s kids are succeeding in sentence-construction and where they need extra help.

The algorithms substitute for human intervention. Instead of teachers having to correct errors late at night with a red pen, the system does it automatically, suggesting corrections and concepts on its own. The goal, says Peter Gault, who founded Quill three years ago, is to reach more students than traditional teaching methods, including those who need support the most. About 400,000 students in 2,000 schools have used the (mostly free) writing-instruction platform so far.

. . . .

Kids today write all the time, perhaps more than previous generations. Whether it’s texts to their friends, or posting on Facebook, they’re constantly hitting the keys one way or another. But all this composition doesn’t necessarily make for better writing, at least not in the formal, academic sense. Just 24% of 8th- and 12th-grade students are “proficient” writers according to the Department of Education’s “The Nation’s Report Card: Writing 2011,” published in 2012. Teachers often complain they lack professional development to teach writing well. And, there’s a widespread acceptance in education circles that writing instruction is less developed and successful than, say, math or science teaching.

“Teachers just don’t have enough time in the day to offer feedback on everything students write, and that becomes a huge blocker to students moving forward,” Gault says in an interview. “Using machine learning to detect these patterns really unlocks a lot of options that allow us to bring this to thousands, or millions, of additional students in the coming years.”

The New York-based startup trains its algorithms with about 200 responses to each exercise, submitted by its programmers (it has about 300 exercises so far). As the students offer up thousands of their own responses, the code is then able to detect patterns without additional human intervention. When it prompts students to correct their sentences, it does so based on the collective trial-and-error of thousands of other users of the service.

Link to the rest at Fast Company and here’s a link to Quill.org.

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